Reed Photo Collection Highlight: Early 20th Century Motorcars

Each of the images below from Lewis Reed’s Collection has a car included, whether as a center point of a family photo, in the background of life’s moments, or on a cross-country road trip. These photos give a snapshot not just of the cars at the time, but a peak into an important aspect of the everyday lives of County residents.

There were no paved highways for automobiles to shoot along at 60 and 70 miles an hour; just country roads, filled with ruts, sand, and mud, over which no one wanted to drive at the maximum speed of passenger cars, which was about 30 miles an hour. But every trip was a different adventure.

early automobile

In the early 20th century, traveling cross-country by automobile was intimidating, if not a little bit dangerous. Cars were unreliable and roads were rough. The child in the photo is my mother, Mary Jane Reed Gartner. Photo by Lewis Reed

A cross-country road trip is a quintessentially American experience. It’s always an adventure, but in modern times it’s a relatively tame one: The roads are paved, signs point the way, and Siri always has your back. If cars had cup holders back then, these folks would be rolling with crystal goblets, not Big Gulps.

Come away with me, Lucille: In my merry Oldsmobile: Down the road of life we’ll fly: Automo-bubbling, you and I….

1918 Oldsmobile Roadster

Ethelene Thomas Reed, who married Lewis Reed in 1921, is sitting in passenger seat of a circa 1918 Oldsmobile Club Roadster and her sister, Celeste Thomas Brown, is sitting behind her in the back seat. Photo by Lewis Reed

1918 Oldsmobile

1918 Oldsmobile Roadster shown with Ethelene and her sister Celeste behind the wheel. Photo taken by Lewis Reed at the Clinton Clay Thomas family farm which was located on Butterfly Lane in Braddock, Maryland. Photo by Lewis Reed

Back in the early part of the last century when the automobile was still new and a novelty, it was often used for Kodak moments.

1911 Speedwell Touring

Two ladies posing in a 1911 Speedwell Touring car. Check out the humongous steering wheel! Photo by Lewis Reed

The photographs below was taken by Lewis Reed on one of his many cross country road trips. The car is a 1935 Dodge Touring Sedan with Maryland Dealer license plates. Note the rear-hinged “Suicide Door”. Cars of this era did not have seat belts, so there was nothing to hold a passenger in the car. The term “suicide doors” was therefore placed on vehicles with the rear-hinged door configuration, the theory being that the forward motion of the car could cause the door to fly open, possibly causing the unlucky person sitting next to the door to be pulled out of the car, or the door itself could be ripped from its hinges.

1935 Dodge Touring Sedan

I have no idea what prompted my grandfather to take a photo at this location, but perhaps it was the amazing view in the background. Photo by Lewis Reed

1935 Dodge Touring

Lewis Reed’s 1935 Dodge Touring Sedan. Photo by Lewis Reed

In order for occupants of early 1920’s cars to remain warm during the cold winter months, especially when it was snowing, it was necessary for them to dress warmly and cover themselves with blankets. Note the car in the photo below is mostly open-bodied, with no windows and certainly no heat. Tire chains are on the rear tires. I cannot say with any certainty, but I believe it is Lewis Reed’s car with his wife and baby daughter, Mary Jane, sitting inside all bundled up.

Bear Pits Buffalo Zoo 1920s

Buffalo Zoo Bear Pits, Buffalo, New York, ca. early 1920s. Photo by Lewis Reed.

Early motorists weren’t afraid to drive in the snow simply because they didn’t have 4-wheel drive and electronic assistance; they just got out and did it. Who would dare go out in these conditions today without an AWD SUV and heated seats?

old car in snow

Car stopped (stuck?) on snowbound road. Although no tire chains are in evidence, they might have been useful coming up that hill. Photo by Lewis Reed

Nobody really thinks about it today. If your car is too cold, then simply switch on the “heater” and soon your car will be warm. However, it wasn’t always that way. What passengers did back then, in the early days of motoring, was bundle up as if one was outdoors. This meant heavy clothing, winter gloves and snow boots. It wasn’t long, however, before car makers realized that a few comforts, like heat in the passenger compartment, or even some type of heated seating, would help sell cars.

1920 Hudson Six

There weren’t heaters in these old cars, so motorists had to really bundle up. Photo by Lewis Reed

1920 Oldsmobile

Lewis Reed’s 1920 Oldsmobile stopped along Goshen Road outside rural Gaithersburg. Photo by Lewis Reed

In 1900 car owners were almost by definition wealthy, especially since they often employed chauffeurs: many wouldn’t have dreamed of trying to operate their own vehicles. The earliest car owners had no real repair business to turn to. To be a successful motorist in the early 1900s, you needed to have some sort of mechanical skills. Or you had to find someone who did. Wealthy people employed private chauffeur-mechanics to not only drive, but also maintain and repair their large, expensive automobiles — rather than learn to do it themselves. Chauffeurs would be in charge of everything to do with the owner’s motor vehicle including repairs and maintenance and cleaning this meant that early personal chauffeurs had to be skilled mechanics. Pierce-Arrow was one of the most common makers of luxury cars in the early 20th century. The price for one of these vehicles was sometimes as much as ten times the price of a standard touring car.

Lewis Reed Chauffeur 1910

Two ladies with parasols are sitting in the landaulet section of an early Pierce-Arrow limousine, while chauffeur Lewis Reed tends to the motor. The rear portion of the limousine is partitioned from the driver with a glass shield, and covered by a convertible top, which you can see is currently in the lowered position behind the ladies. Ca. 1910

Chauffeur Lewis Reed (left) with unidentified family, 1914

Chauffeur Lewis Reed (left) in the 1914 photo above poses with an unidentified family and their Pierce-Arrow Model 48.

This photo taken by Lewis Reed in the early 1920s was not picked for its shock value, but for the history it contains of an era long since gone. In the first 10 years of the 1900s, there were no stop signs, traffic lights, lane lines, brake lights, driver’s licenses, or posted speed limits. It was the wild west when it came to driving. Drinking and driving? Not that big a deal. Poorly maintained roads, uneducated drivers, and speeds approaching 40 mph was the perfect combination for some really bad accidents. This photograph sure hits home with just how fragile those early cars were.
old car wreck

Motor carnage. Photo by Lewis Reed, ca. 1920

Early automobiles were unreliable. They broke down frequently and needed to be pulled out of mud or snow by horses. They meant it back in the good old days when motorists were advised to “get a horse”. The photo shows William Beall in his 1915 Pullman in front of old St Mary’s Church and his younger brother Vernon on horseback “towing” him to Reed Brothers.

horses towing old car

Early transportation powered by true “horsepower”. Photo taken by Lewis Reed, 1915

The touring car was one of the most common styles of automobile in the early decades of the 20th century. Nearly every auto manufacturer offered a vehicle in this style. Touring cars generally were denoted by an open body seating four or more people. Identified by the triangle logo on the grill and the number of passengers seated in it, the car below appears to be a 1918 Hudson Super Six Seven Passenger Touring. The Hudson and Oldsmobile were sold at Reed Brothers from roughly 1917 through 1923.

1918 Hudson Super Six Seven Passenger Touring

Anybody for a demonstration drive? Photo by Lewis Reed

Vehicles required much higher road clearances than modern cars due to the poor state of roads and tracks, hence the large diameter skinny tires of the day which were effective at cutting through mud to reach more solid ground.

early 1920s touring car

Early touring car with its top down. The folded top behind passengers was known as the “fan” when in the down position. Photo by Lewis Reed

The popularity of the touring car began to wane in the 1920s when cars with enclosed passenger compartments (i.e. fixed steel roofs) became more affordable, and began to consistently out-sell the open cars.

early 1920s touring car

Early touring car. Photo by Lewis Reed

The touring car body style was popular in the early 20th century, being a larger alternative to the two-seat roadster. The photo below was taken in 1915 by Lewis Reed in front of the original Rockville Garage. Old St Mary’s Church is in the background. Note the unpaved dirt road on Veirs Mill Road. Rockville Garage was a distributor of Fisk Tires until circa 1918, when they replaced it with the Firestone brand. The car appears to be a 1916 Studebaker Roadster. The roadster was a sportier style of vehicle, usually a two-seater with a convertible canopy roof. Many manufacturers offered roadster versions of their larger touring car models.

Fisk Tires

This photo was taken by Lewis Reed across from Reed Brothers Dodge, circa 1915. Old St Mary’s Church is in the background. Photo by Lewis Reed.

Ever want to see how sausage is made? Well, okay – maybe not… but this interesting photo taken by Lewis Reed some 100 plus years ago allows you to see how 18 men managed to cram themselves into a 1910-1911 Pierce Arrow Model 48 7-Passenger Touring. Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company in Buffalo, New York, produced some of the finest automobiles made and was one of the most popular high-quality cars of the time.

Car stuffing

Photo by Lewis Reed

The automobile has affected this country more than any other invention of its time. Without automobiles, life as we know it would not be the same, and the changes that they have brought can be seen in every aspect of our lives.

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About Reed Brothers

I am a co-owner of the former Reed Brothers Dodge in Rockville, Maryland. Lewis Reed, the founder of Reed Brothers Dodge was my grandfather. We were a family-owned and operated car dealership in Rockville for almost a century. I served in the United States Air Force for 30 years before retiring in the top enlisted grade of Chief Master Sergeant in July 2006. In 2016, I received the Arthur M. Wagman Award for Historic Preservation Communication from Peerless Rockville for documenting the history of Reed Brothers Dodge in both blog and book format. This distinguished honor recognizes outstanding achievement by writers, educators, and historians whose work has heightened public awareness of Rockville’s architectural and cultural heritage, growth and development.

One response to “Reed Photo Collection Highlight: Early 20th Century Motorcars”

  1. Patrick Kernan says :

    Great stuff!

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